Soil preparation the natural way
Organic gardening is all about natural cycles – life, decay and renewal. Mother Nature is put in charge about 80% of the time so that her creations can work to ensure healthy soil and plants. The gardener is responsible for the other 20%.
Some say muck and compost is the key to organic gardening. Others say planting companion plants and encouraging wildlife are just as important. Conservationists insist on indigenous (or even endemic) planting to save water too, and as far as feeding yourself goes, the purists reckon that you should only plant heritage vegetables.
Here at The Gardener we agree with all of it, but also believe in using modern technology and products to convert the suburban gardener to organic gardening and eco-friendly principles. Mid-winter is the perfect time to start off with organic projects and to stock up on handy tools and organic products to start gardening the natural way.
Good soil is the starting point
Healthy soil, frequently enriched with organic material, will have a crumbly texture and will become so easy to work with that a hole can actually be made with your little finger when planting a flower or vegetable seedling. The organic matter improves the structure of any soil by encouraging a mass of small animals, friendly fungi and good bacteria to break it down into smaller parts. Microorganisms deeper down turn it into humus, which provides the life-giving nutrients that are taken up by plant roots.
The good news!
Top-quality compost is available at all garden centres and other outlets selling garden products – even supermarkets stock compost! One also has the option of ordering bulk loads of compost from suppliers of organically certified soil mediums. Don’t forget the fertilizer! Organic fertilisers provide a slow release of nutrients to plants. It supplies your plants with much need macro and micro nutrients and improves carbon levels in the soil.
Prepare for planting
Preparing the perfect planting hole for a new shrub or tree that you have so proudly brought home is probably the most important action in successful gardening. Keep in mind that you will only have one opportunity, unless you want to tackle the big job of replanting a mature shrub or tree a few years later! One of the most common garden questions we are asked hinges on problems caused by the hole in the ground, which has not been prepared with care or has been dug in the wrong place.
After preparing planting holes, add copious amounts of quality compost and a handful of organic fertiliser and a handful of bonemeal to the excavated soil and mix it in very well. You can also use superphosphate as a root fertiliser but be aware that if it is not mixed in well it can burn roots. When dealing with a large tree hole, keep the topsoil and excavated subsoil on separate heaps. Add compost and fertiliser to both, and backfill the hole with the topsoil to planting level, keeping the other heap to finally fill up the hole around the new tree.
Meet your new best friend and the cheapest labour around – the common earthworm. If you pack away your garden fork and layer the soil with loads of compost, they will keep on digging it in, and aerating the soil while doing so. The earthworm consumes its own bodyweight in organic material every day, mixes it with soil particles, digestive juices, bacteria and fungi, and excretes rich humus. Their castings (they frequently shed skin) are also very rich in nutrients.
The good news!
Apart from encouraging ordinary earthworms to keep your garden soil healthy, there is also the option of worm farms, which are available in different designs and sizes. Most of them consist of a little box that can sit comfortably next to any backdoor, and which can be delivered ready-to-use. Keeping a worm farm stocked with the specific earthworm species Eisenia fetida (which are worm slaves that will turn kitchen waste into nutritious worm tea and worm compost in a jiffy) is another organic method to ensure great soil supporting happy and well-fed plants.
You have to mulch
Mulching insulates your soil from the baking sun and saves it from drying out too quickly. Organic mulches also nurture populations of soil microbes, fungi and other creatures that are critical in breaking down organic material into humus.
The good news!
To enable you to make your own organic mulch from garden refuse you need handy tools – a chipper for cutting up prunings, which can be spread out in layers over the soil, and a leaf blower to collect fallen leaves that can either be composted or broken down to create a rich leaf mould.
You can also buy bags of commercial mulch such as bark nuggets or bark chips at garden centres.